New book details women’s historical roles through the art of stone and metal

Art, like bones of ancient hominids, provides clues to the past—particularly cultural life. From this artwork, certain roles for women—wives, mothers, mourners, midwives and even sex goddesses—emerge from the images sculpted from stone, engraved on wood or molded out of various earthen and metal materials, according to art historian Jenifer Neils, the author of Women in the Ancient World.

These ancient artifacts tell about women’s lives, mostly from the perspective of elite society members who had the means to commission the art, says Neils, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History.

In ancient societies, men hunted and women stayed close to the home’s hearth to cook, weave fabric and tend children. Some women left the home for the gladiator’s arena or the philosopher’s circle, but to a lesser degree than women who assumed traditional roles, Neils says.

Women also were prostitutes, entertainers and slaves, the last depicted as women with short bobbed hair in the art.

In addition, even though women were primarily homebodies, they had major roles in religions. The temples, homes for the venerated gods and goddesses, were maintained and run by women such as the Vestal Virgins, whom Roman people respected and held in high regard.

Neil’s examination of women in artwork spanned from as early as 4400 B.C. in Egypt to as late as 476 A.D. in Greece.

“Contributions of women have been underestimated,” Neils says. “Women had a bigger role than we give them credit for—men get credit as the hunters but the gathering done by women and children was probably more effective in preventing starvation.”

Neils began the book in 2009 when the British Museum approached her about doing a picture book about women in a series of art books. She recalls envisioning a larger look at women than the small-book format.

The museum provided her with 216 pages for the book, published by the British and Getty Museums, to fill with images and text about life in early Mediterranean civilizations.

Drawing from the British Museum’s vast image collection in classical art and its extensive collection of online images, the examination of women expanded beyond the worlds of ancient Rome and Athens and into the Near East (Syria, Turkey and Crete) and Egypt.

Her research took her to the British Museum in England to look at the museum’s collections and drew upon gynecological artifacts in collections at Case Western Reserve’s Dittrick Medical History Center.

Neils says that for women, those ancient female roles continue even today in some cultures that constrain women to the domestic sphere as midwives and mothers. What has changed for women since the ancient times, she says, is access to birth control and the right to vote, which give women more freedoms in different realms of their lives.